SXSW Music Diary: Day One

The Casket Girls were an early highlight of the SXSW Music Conference. (Credit: Pat Healy)
The Casket Girls were an early highlight of the SXSW Music Conference. (Credit: Pat Healy)

For those who have never been to the SXSW Music Conference it must be frustrating to watch people who talk about it get an other-worldly look in their eyes as they try to describe the appeal of the biggest music event of the year in Austin, Texas. But it is difficult to capture the electric feeling of possibility pulsing through the city, as more music fills the air than you would think there are molecules for and musicians both struggling and super famous walk the same streets to rush to their own gigs and the gigs of other acts they’re eager to see. To put it into perspective though, a first-person hour-by-hour account of the first day of the experience should be helpful.

Wednesday
4:30 a.m.: Get out of bed, put head under running water, let songs about waking up enter my mind. “Cold water in the face brings you back to this awful place” from “The Magnificent Seven,” by The Clash and strangely enough, “gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal” from “Friday” by Rebecca Black. Both songs mention wakeup times that still aren’t as early as mine.

4:45: Get in the car in hopes of beating almost inevitable traffic. Listen to “Remember When” by The Orwells, think of a few additional questions to ask them when I meet up with them on Thursday. I feel very tired and worry that I might fall asleep behind the wheel. Think of the episode of “The Simpsons” where Homer has to work two jobs and on his drive home as he’s falling asleep, and all of the other cars turn into hallucinations of inviting floating beds. Realize that if I crack up my car I won’t get to my 7 a.m. flight on time.

6:05: After a punctual Silver Line pickup I arrive at the airport. Many people in line to check bags are carrying guitars. There are also more than a few members of Hells Angels in line. Could they be on my flight to Austin? The city’s best-known slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” and bringing a motorcycle gang to your music conference certainly accomplishes this directive.

6:10: Worry that the Hells Angels are plotting a terror strike.

6:11: Feel guilty for suspecting that a gang of guys who like to ride motorcycles would want to hijack a plane.

6:12: Wonder if those Hells Angels will rent motorcycles when they get to where they’re flying to.

6:25: I arrive at my terminal to await boarding and take a seat next to somebody who looks like Aerosmith‘s drummer. I scan ye olde mental Rolodex for a name. Joey Kramer! He is blinking hard to stay awake. His white-blond spikey hair and even lighter flavor-savor beard match the google images that I covertly pull up to verify it was really him. But the dude has a snakeskin carry-on bag. How could it not be? I still decide not to engage because his feverish “GOT TO STAY AWAKE” blinking signals to me that he’d rather not be approached by a writer who hasn’t locked down his first day of coverage. It’s a combination of nerve-wracking and exhilarating to try to find that first story upon arrival. I have had luck on my side. I’ve set up interviews in the past to combat this empty-handed feeling, but that’s even more of a hassle when you’re racing against time in vehicles that have huge lines to board them. The taxi line at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport are notorious for being almost as long as the lines to get into marquee events. One time I made it by the skin of my teeth to meet Odd Future, an hour after landing on the ground. The next year I decided not to do that scramble, and I ended up sharing a cab with Jon Langford of the Mekons, who graciously provided the interview on our way into the city.

6:40: As I board the plane, I see Joey Kramer again. He’s upgraded his seat to the “more legroom” option. I am seated next to a deaf woman with a sorority sweatshirt that says Lil Ewok on the back. She is FaceTiming with a friend in sign language. I wonder if there is some sort of hearing impaired component for SXSW, as one year I witnessed a very unfortunate event while standing amongst a group of deaf people at a Strokes show.

6:50: Consider writing a question on my notepad and asking Lil Ewok about said hearing-impaired-component at SXSW.

7:00: As the plane takes off and as I look down on Boston from above, I realize that there’s serious potential to offend with that question. What would I write? “I couldn’t help but notice that you’re deaf. I’m headed to Austin for SXSW, where I listen to all this great music, but you can’t hear, so I’m wondering why you’d be going to Austin. However, one time I saw The Strokes with a bunch of deaf people and this horrible thing happened … Were you there?” Nah, that wouldn’t work. I put on my headphones and fall asleep.

9:30: Wake up and take a walk to stretch my legs. When I pass Joey Kramer on the way back to my seat, I notice he’s asleep. The power-blinking must have worn out the poor guy.

9:40: I attempt to access the wi-fi on my phone and have success, but I’m not able to send messages back. The publicist for Warpaint wants to know if I can meet them for an interview at 12:15 on Wednesday instead of our scheduled appointment on the same time on Thursday. That would be perfect! I wouldn’t have to struggle to find a story that isn’t as exciting as sitting down with these four women, whose recently released self-titled second album has been on rotation for the past few weeks. Hey, if you’re a young band and you’re reading this, here’s a pointer: Play SXSW early! There will always be reporters scrambling to find something to write about and even if you’re only OK, you could still get some exposure because they haven’t witnessed anything better yet. The notion of what is good is always evolving during the SXSW experience. You see something and think, “Wow, that was pretty great!” and then you see something later that makes you think, “Bah, what I witnessed before and thought was great was NOTHING compared to this awesomeness!”

9:45: After a few unsuccessful attempts to contact Warpaint’s publicist I resign myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it from the airport to their hotel in time for a 12:15 appointment.

10:45: Wheels on the ground in Austin, and I reach out to Warpaint’s publicist, telling her that I’m going to do my best to get to the hotel by quarter past noon.

11:05: The airport isn’t that crowded and miraculously there is no line for a cab. “You must have been on the first flight,” says the cab driver. Ah yes, I guess getting up at 4:30 paid off.

11:39: Arrive at hotel with enough time to unpack and sort myself out before interviewing Warpaint.

12:15 p.m.: Have a beer with Warpaint. It’s only noon, but it’s SXSW and it’s Shiner Bock, which they don’t carry in liquor stores in the Northeast. We discuss their most recent album, who they’re psyched to see and they marvel at the anecdote of Lil Ewok on FaceTime, and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg brings up the little publicized fact that FaceTime has really revolutionized communication for deaf people.

1:05: After a great conversation with the band, we take a panoramic photo on my phone. Guitarist and singer Emily Konkol asks if she can text a copy to her phone and she expresses admiration for the fully pregnant woman who is my screensaver. “Oh, that’s my wife,” I respond, “and she’s actually had the baby! He’s one now!” I show them a picture of my son. Singer and guitarist Theresa Wayman shares that she has an eight-year-old and the band’s tour manager shares that he also has an eight-year-old.

1:15: Pick up my badge at the Austin Convention Center. I recognize singer Garland Jeffreys, who I interviewed for his recollection of Bob Marley and the Wailers playing a tiny club with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band some 40 years ago. Jeffreys gives me a hearty handshake, locks me with his piercing blue eyes, pats me on the back and asks how I’m doing. He pulls out a folder of what shows he’s playing. A lot of SXSW is like this; performers having such a demanding schedule they don’t always know where they’re going to be an hour from now.

1:30-3:30: I transcribe my interview with Warpaint and write up the story, post it online, and make sure the page designers back at the paper have everything they need.

3:35: Do FaceTime with my wife and little boy, but the connection is a little spotty.

3:45: Take a pedicab to the Long Center to take in a taping of “Jimmy Kimmel Live”. The venue is more out-of-the-way than I had anticipated. We pass a hotel where my friend and I stayed for one night when we first came to SXSW in 2001. We only had accommodations for one night and depended on the kindness of Texans for the rest of the week. The fondest memory I have of that hotel is also my biggest regret. We were in the lobby when we spied Annie Leibovitz and we both recognized her. What we realized immediately after the fact is that we should have pretended not to know who she was and asked her to take our photo. “Excuse me, Miss? Could you just take a picture of my friend and me?” And then we could always just say “photo by Annie Leibovitz” any time we used the picture.

4:00: Arrive at the Long Center, and the line lives up to the name of the venue. There is a bluegrass band playing called Wood & Wire.

4:30: Enter the Long Center to a montage of Kimmel’s best bits. It’s at this point that I realize that the taping doesn’t begin until the 6 o’clock hour. Have I made a mistake? Nah, this is a big deal and it’s only Wednesday. The real SXSW day stuff doesn’t start up until at least Thursday. Kimmel’s guests are Robert Duvall, Rachael Ray and Damon Albarn. I text co-workers to make sure everything’s running smoothly enough with the paper and pester the designers to send me a screen-grab of the page as soon as it’s ready.

5:20: The SXSW app I downloaded alerts me that if I rush over to the iTunes tent, I can catch a set from Kendrick Lamar. While I appreciate what he does, I’ve already seen him live, and I’m locked into the Kimmel experience.

6:15: After a briefing of how the show works, we learn that the musical guest will actually perform more than just the one song that will be televised. I’m psyched because I like Damon Albarn, he of Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, The Band and The Queen fame. Damon Albarn has always reminded me of a musical Jude Law. Hollywood take note: If there’s a biopic of Damon Albarn in the works, cast Jude Law! Broadway take note: If there’s a Jude Law musical in the works, cast Damon Albarn!

6:30: The show begins. It’s fun and funny and I don’t really have to write that much about it because you can watch it all here. I haven’t yet though, so I don’t know if you’ll get to see my handsome mug in the crowd or not.

7:30: Damon Albarn has 14 people onstage with him. One of the guys is clad in burgundy capri pants and a huge Pharrell hat. I wonder if it actually is Pharrell Williams. I later find out that Pharrell is in Brisbane tonight, but if there is anybody on this planet who could be in more than one place at one time, it would be him. Also onstage with Albarn are a four-piece string section, a choir and the traditional backups of drums, bass, guitar and keys. The songs are good, but not remarkable. They’re sturdy-sounding compositions that would probably be more memorable after listening to them a few times on an album. After the third song I see a guy who looks like G. Love but as far as I can tell from SXSW scheduling, G. Love is not here. But that’s the thing about SXSW scheduling; you can never rely on anything being posted in advance.

8:05: Stop in for food at Casino El Camino on Sixth Street on the way to drop off my computer. A burger joint that plays Misfits is alright by me.

9:03: Make my way across the highway to try to find the venue where the Casket Girls will be playing at 10. I stop in at a place called Clive Bar and watch a few songs by Emily King. It’s not really my thing, but she’s soulful and spirited and she’ll be touring for Laura Mvula, a pairing which makes perfect sense. The crowd is really into her, but it’s too smooth for what I’m looking for in my SXSW experience. I wonder if the women from Warpaint would like her.

9:30: I find Half Step, a tequila bar where artists affiliated with the Frenchkiss label are showcasing. A band called Pile are rocking like it’s 1992. It’s the sort of stuff that was radio-friendly when aggressive alt-nation fare ruled the airwaves. They end with a song where the singer says something about “try to keep it cool,” and it’s the best song in their set. It’s always good when a band realizes their strongest assets.

9:59: I know of the Casket Girls from a cardboard single I got in the mail last year. The song, “Walking on a Wire” sounds like the sort of music made by people who won’t be playing music for the rest of their adult lives. It’s a great song, but the rhythms are a little off in places and you just get the feeling that this Savannah band will disband as soon as they get real jobs. Thankfully, I was way wrong. Taking the stage with long blonde wigs, gaudy jewelry, sexy stockings and huge Jackie O sunglasses, the pair that lead the band do carefully choreographed moves as they sing doubled melodies that sometimes veer away from each other to become harmonies. The drummer looks like one of the Beach Boys from the 1970s, and he pummels the kit. The guy playing the ancient-looking organ wears a knit mask and the woman playing bass looks like Daria Morgendorffer. If the bass weren’t so infected with fuzz, and if the keyboard sound wasn’t so eerie, this band could be straight-up pop, but the fact that a lot of the songs seem to mention death would probably prevent them from being classified as pop too. The lead Girls’ choreography owes a debt to Romy and Michele but as silly as it is, they don’t break character.

10:35: Although I am loving the Casket Girls, I should be getting to the Cedar Street Courtyard to see Lucius, another band fronted by two women with a sense of style is somewhere between serious and silly. But I’m torn because now that I’m so hooked I want to hear “Walking on a Wire” live. As I’m thinking this, one of the Casket Girls is reaching for my hand to help her down from the stage. I oblige. The one on stage right asks the same of me and kisses me to say thanks. The Girls are in the audience now, hugging and kissing their fans. I’m happy that I was the first.

10:50 I take a pedicab across town. The driver’s name is Danielle and she’s cranking Frank Sinatra‘s “I Won’t Dance” from a boombox beneath her bike. People stare at us as we drive by. Maybe it’s the “I’m not asbestos” line. We arrive at the next venue just as Lucius are experiencing some sort of technical difficulty. There’s something to be said for technical difficulties though. Sometimes they can create a perfect tension that will be shattered by the right song when the band is back up and running. This is exactly the case as Lucius play “Go Home,” one of the standout tracks from their debut EP. Their harmonies are perfect and an over-the-top slide guitar brings just the right amount of menacing.

11:05: My heart has been lifted by Lucius, and their mission has been accomplished, so it’s off to the next venue, which is Stubbs to see St. Vincent. The set has already begun by the time I get there, and a huge line surrounds the venue, but each day every badge holder is allowed one “express pass” to see a show of his or her choosing, and I selected St. Vincent as mine. I get into the venue almost immediately. Woo-hoo! Annie Clark moves mechanically and she’s dressed like a tramp, but it’s hard to objectify a woman who is whip-smart and badass enough to sing a line like “I prefer your love to Jesus.” And with her purple-white old lady hair she defies the notion of what is conventionally sexy, which in essence is even sexier. She’s also one of the most exciting guitarist alive. After an especially sick guitar solo that would probably make Prince jealous, she holds her guitar out for a stagehand to take it away from her, as if to say “I’m done with this thing. Dispose of it now!” She doesn’t strum chords, she just plays big fat leads.

12:25 a.m.: The show is over and I’m pretty tired. It’s the first day of SXSW so I should probably absorb more, but really, anything I could see would be hard to beat what I have just seen. I decide to go to bed. I am a block away from the club where approximately five minutes later a drunk driver will crash into pedestrians and kill two people on a moped. I learn of the accident from a text the next morning asking if I’m OK. I have had luck on my side.



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